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Water Research Breakthrough Nets Papanicolaou Einstein Award

Thanos Papanicolaou

Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence Thanos Papanicolaou at the Hydraulics and Sedimentation Lab.


Swimmers, tubers, and boaters often have the same question when they are in or around the water: What, exactly, is down there?

While a silted creek might not prevent someone from enjoying a day in the sun, it’s a different case for those whose jobs depend on knowing what lies beneath.

UT’s Henry Goodrich Chair of Excellence Thanos Papanicolaou has helped solve that riddle by developing a way to allow researchers to see underwater sediment and predict its likelihood for mobility.

Papanicolaou’s method uses a concept called “the aerial probability of entrainment,” which helps predict how underwater materials will spread. The concept builds on a theory pioneered by Hans Albert Einstein, son of the legendary physicist.

Einstein was a key figure in the development of what is now known as hydraulic engineering—the study of water’s flow, how it carries sediment, and how it impacts the environment.

For his breakthrough, Papanicolaou has been named the 2018 Hans Albert Einstein award winner from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It is perhaps the most prestigious distinction that someone in hydraulic engineering can earn.

“I’m honored to be chosen for such a major award and for the recognition it brings to my work,” said Papanicolaou, who earned his doctorate in 1997 by doing his dissertation on Einstein’s work.

“Winning an award named for someone whose research you studied and built off of is a surreal feeling.”

Einstein relied on calculations and probabilities to determine aspects of flow, but Papanicolaou’s application of modern sensor technology has taken the work one step further, improving reliability and accuracy.

Using advanced techniques such as aerial sensing and image analysis as well as the use of “green lidar” and radio frequency IDs to map mobilization of the river beds, Papanicolaou was able to identify sediment flow. He also incorporated turbulence to predict how bursts of turbulence affect the onset of mobilization of sediment.

His breakthrough could give rise to the possibility of other uses, including eliminating the need to dredge through better design of waterways.

“The concept of the probability of entrainment linked with sensing techniques allow us to have eyes underwater and then to develop a new set of models based off sediment flow and residence time,” said Papanicolaou, who also serves as director of the Tennessee Water Resources Research Center. “It opens up the possibility of knowing the life expectancy of dams to the design of self-cleaning waterways through a better understanding of flow.”

Papanicolaou has been recognized with the Hunter Rouse Hydraulics Medal award for his work on landscape connectivity and aiding to the development of the discipline catchment geomorphology—how all of the land around a waterway can affect flow—which ASCE noted in awarding him the honor along with the Einstein award.

ASCE has given the Einstein award annually since 1989 for “significant contribution to the engineering profession in the area of erosion control, sedimentation, and/or waterway development,” and considers researchers and projects from around the world.

Papanicolaou will receive the award at a ceremony during the Environmental Water Resources Institute Congress in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in June.

Since 1997, he has received nearly $20 million in combined funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, USDA, NOAA, the Office of Naval Research, and both the US Departments of Energy and Transportation as well as several state departments of transportation. Papanicolaou spearheaded the establishment of the Hydraulics and Sedimentation Lab at UT and is currently the co-director of the Intensively Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory.

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